How Customer Complaints Can Improve Your Retail Business

happy customer

Here's a question retailers wrestle with—are complaints a good thing to a bad thing? Easy—complaints are terrific and powerful. They are a window into your customer, allowing you to get a glimpse of what they see. 

Now, you might be part of the camp that believes a retailer should never hear any complaints After all, isn't the lack of complaints the very definition of a happy customer? Well, first, you should be focused on customer experience and not customer service. Customer experience goes much further than customer service. It is proactive, not reactive meaning—service is focused on what to do when you get a complaint. Experience is focused on what you do to keep from getting complaints in the first place. So while I agree that no complaints may be a good thing, here is what else I have learned through the years. 

First, I have consulted with many retailers who were struggling. Their business was down ad they could not figure out why. After all, there have been no customer complaints they would tell me. When I did my investigation and research, I found that the reason there were no complaints was that customers felt it was a waste of time. They did not believe the store even cared if they did complain. Again, if you are focused on customer experience versus customer service you are searching and looking for customer feedback all the time—not just sitting back in your office and waiting for something to go wrong or waiting for a customer comment card to get filled out. 

Second, the best retailers don't wait for complaints; they reach out ahead. That's why I had a practice of calling at least 10 customers a week to check on their experience in my stores. These were all random calls, but they all served me well. I made sure the person knew I was the owner and wanted honest feedback. SIDE NOTE: I always made sure to recognize and reward employees when the call resulted in a positive experience in the store. Remember, what gets rewarded gets repeated. 

Keep in mind, that some people who complain just for the sake of complaining. They can’t find good in anything. You typically hear them say things like, “Isn’t this bad...Isn’t that bad...Isn’t THAT bad?” Those are people who have low self-esteem and are trying to make themselves feel important by putting others down. Avoid these people. They do not make sincere complaints.

However, as George R.R. Martin said, “Wisdom oft comes from the mouths of babes.” Good customers who complain (unlike those mentioned in the paragraph above) are bringing attention to something in your business that may not be right.

Let me give you an example of a complaint I had that was handled well. I went out to dinner with my wife last Saturday night. She ordered fish, and when it came out, it wasn’t cooked all the way through. We never really send back food, but this was really wrong. We contacted the waiter and let him know.

Later, the manager came by our table to check in and ask us about the problem. He took really good care of us. He explained that this rarely happens and covered the cost of our meal. We left the restaurant feeling great—we’ll go back. The manager recognized there was a problem, and he addressed it, which is the most important thing.

Turning the tables: I have speaking engagements all over the United States. In one of my presentations, I had four slides with spelling errors. Someone wrote to me, pointing out the errors. They also pointed out punctuation errors, which ended up being incorrect in the context, but they were absolutely right about the four spelling errors.

I was grateful that they took the time to send me an email. It taught me that I should have someone dedicated to proofreading my presentations. Because of that complaint, I now have more accurate presentations. Because of that complaint, I now have two separate people review every deck I build to check for accuracy and quality. 

Here are 6 steps to take when you get a complaint:

  1. Thank Your Customer. Happy or complaining, that’s what they are—your customer. If they are so frustrated they’ll never come back, they won’t waste their breath telling you about a mistake. If they complain, they are trying to help. The worst thing you can do is argue with them. They are being nice enough to point something out to you, and it could teach you a valuable lesson.
  2. Listen. Let them tell you in detail exactly what took place. Ask them questions. When someone is complaining, I look at it like a balloon that is full to capacity, nearly ready to pop. Allowing and encouraging them to explain lets a little air out of the balloon.
  3. Have Them Repeat the Issue a Couple of Times. This allows them to tell more of their story, and lets more air out of the already-to-capacity balloon.
  4. Ask Them Questions About Their Experience. “What could we do to correct it?” “What solution or change should we make to avoid making this mistake in the future? After all, ignoring a good complaint is just bad business.
  5. Resolve the Situation. Ask, “what can we do to correct the situation with you?” If they ask for more than you are able to provide, reply, “I wish we could.” Then, thank them again for the complaint.
  6. Follow Up. Send the customer a note or call them after a week or two to follow up. Thank them again for bringing the issue to your attention, and let them know of any steps you have taken to correct it. Invite them back. Following up with you customer can go a long way.

The bottom line is, we will get complaints—that’s just part of the world of business. Appreciate the ones you get from customers. They are giving you an opportunity to hear and dial into what is upsetting them. Remember to thank them (instead of getting defensive), welcome the complaint, and act on it. 

After 31 years in retail, I can honestly say I wish more people would have told me what they thought. Too many people try to be "polite" and not share what they think. "It's not that big a deal" the customer will say to themselves. And then stay quiet versus acting. How much better of a retailer would I have been if I had heard from everyone? How much better of a retailer would you be? And how loyal would your customers be if they knew you truly cared about their experience?